wheat crops

Turbo charging crops to feed the billions: An interview with Prof Bob Furbank

The former Director of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility‘s Canberra node at CSIRO, Professor Bob Furbank, has given an excellent interview on ABC Radio, discussing plant research and the global challenge to feed 9 billion people by mid-century.

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Now Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis at
Australian National University in Canberra, Bob talks about his experiences in early photosynthesis research and his part in the C4 Rice Consortium.

The C4 Rice Consortium coordinates efforts from labs all over the world trying to isolate the genes responsible in C4 plants and apply them in C3 plants. If successful, yields in wheat and rice are expected to be 50% higher than present. An impressive result seen as vital for future food security. The consortium is led by Jane Langdale at the University of Oxford and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Listen to the interview or read the full transcript here.

A step closer to salt tolerant chickpea crops

A recent study has collected phenotypic data of chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.) which can now be linked with the genotypic data of these lines. This will enable genome-wide association mapping with the aim of identifying loci that underlie salinity tolerance – an important step in developing salt tolerant chickpeas.

In this study, Judith Atieno and co-authors utilised image-based phenotyping at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility to study genetic variation in chickpea for salinity tolerance in 245 diverse accessions (a diversity collection, known as the Chickpea Reference Set).

Chickpea is an important legume crop, used as a highly nutritious food source and grown in rotation with cereal crops to fix nitrogen in the soil or to act as a disease break. However, despite its sensitivity to salt, chickpea is generally grown in semi-arid regions which can be prone to soil salinity. This results in an estimated global annual chickpea yield loss of between 8–10%.

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Salinity tolerance phenotyping in a Smarthouse at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility’s Adelaide node at the Waite Research Precinct – Plants were imaged at 28 DAS for 3 consecutive days prior to 40 mM NaCl application in two increments over 2 days. Plants were daily imaged until 56 DAS. Right pane shows 6-week-old chickpeas on conveyor belts leaving the imaging hall proceeding to an automatic weighing and watering station.

 

The study found, on average, salinity reduced plant growth rate (obtained from tracking leaf expansion through time) by 20%, plant height by 15% and shoot biomass by 28%. Additionally, salinity induced pod abortion and inhibited pod filling, which consequently reduced seed number and seed yield by 16% and 32%, respectively. Importantly, moderate to strong correlation was observed for different traits measured between glasshouse and two field sites indicating that the glasshouse assays are relevant to field performance. Using image-based phenotyping, we measured plant growth rate under salinity and subsequently elucidated the role of shoot ion independent stress (resulting from hydraulic resistance and osmotic stress) in chickpea. Broad genetic variation for salinity tolerance was observed in the diversity panel with seed number being the major determinant for salinity tolerance measured as yield. The study proposes seed number as a selection trait in breeding salt tolerant chickpea cultivars.

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Genotypic variation for salinity tolerance in the Chickpea Reference Set. Varying levels of salinity tolerance exhibited by different chickpea genotypes. Exposure of sensitive genotypes to 40 mM NaCl caused severe stunted growth, leaf damage, and led to less number of reproductive sites (flowers and pods) compared to moderately tolerant and tolerant genotypes.

 

The rapid development of new, high-resolution and high-throughput phenotyping technologies in plant science has provided the opportunity to more deeply explore genetic variation for salinity tolerance in crop species and identify traits that are potentially novel and relevant to yield improvement. The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility provides state-of-the-art phenotyping and analytical tools and expertise in controlled environments and in the field to help academic and commercial plant scientists understand and relate the performance of plants to their genetic make-up. A dedicated cross-disciplinary team of experts provides consultation on project design and high quality support.

To read the full paper in Scientific Reports, “Exploring genetic variation for salinity tolerance in chickpea using image-based phenotyping” (doi:10.1038/s41598-017-01211-7), click here.

To find out more about the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility and how we can support your research click here.

 

 

 

Canberra, Camille and the Cropatron…

As the sun rises over another crisp autumn morning in Canberra, you will find French intern, Camille Mounier, keenly watching over her rice lines in the Cropatron at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility’s node at CSIRO Agriculture and Food.

Her project, ‘A complex system biology approach to understand the factors affecting canopy photosynthesis’, is being led by Dr Xavier Sirault, Director of the node, in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The project team aim to develop system models of canopy photosynthesis for both rice and wheat, in particular, developing novel methods to combine these system models with phenomics data. This approach will help in the identification of the critical factors controlling photosynthetic energy conversion efficiency in C3 species with the view to improving canopy photosynthetic efficiency, and subsequently, crop yields in small grain cereals.

Using the Cropatron platform, Camille will acquire data on canopy growth, gas and energy exchange in order to validate the biophysical photosynthetic model developed by Prof Xinguang Zhu, Head of Plant Systems Biology Group at the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology.

The Cropatron is a PC2 compliant, fully environmentally controlled (temperature, CO2 and humidity) greenhouse equipped with an automated gantry system (operating at 3.5m above the floor) for proxy-sensing imaging of plants grown in mini canopies. The sensing head is composed of an hyperspectral camera (400-1000nm) for measuring chlorophyll pigments, Far IR imaging for proxy sensing of canopy conductance, LiDAR for quantifying canopy architecture and monitoring growth over time, lysimeters for measuring water use at plot level and a gas exchange chamber at canopy level for measuring canopy assimilation.

Academic and commercial plant scientists are welcome to access the Cropatron platform – find out about pricing, availability and bookings here.

 

Drought knows no borders

The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) was delighted to welcome His Excellency Mr Mohamed Khairat, Ambassador of The Arab Republic of Egypt, to its Adelaide node recently.

Egyptians share our love of wheat, however, they are heavily reliant on wheat imports which are struggling to keep up with demand. As a remedy, 1.5 million hectares of Egyptian land has been set aside for local wheat production, but there are challenges ahead. Egyptian wheat growers suffer from the same yield limiting issues of heat and drought as we do here in southern Australia.

While touring the facility, His Excellency shared his enthusiasm for future collaboration with the APPF’s Dr Trevor Garnett.

“There is a wealth of knowledge and experience at the APPF and the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide in plant phenotyping and wheat production. His Excellency sees exciting opportunities for Egyptian scientists and PhD students to collaborate on research and share ideas on how to improve this essential crop”, said Dr Garnett.

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His Excellency Mr Mohamed Khairat, Ambassador of The Arab Republic of Egypt (pictured right) talks with Dr Trevor Garnett in the DroughtSpotter greenhouse at The Plant Accelerator®, Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (Adelaide node)

 

Major investment in plant root phenotyping to answer key questions

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3-D image of root architecture – Lynch Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

It all starts in the roots

Australian agriculture operates in a largely harsh, resource limited (nutrients, water) environment so the role of plant roots is even more vital to crop performance.

While advances in technology have resulted in a tenfold increase in crop productivity over the past century, soil quality has declined. Advanced root systems that increase soil organic matter can improve soil structure, fertiliser efficiency, water productivity, crop yield and climate resilience, while mitigating topsoil erosion — all of which provide near-term and sustained economic value.

It is acknowledged within the international plant science and phenotyping community that root phenotyping is a critical component for crop improvement, but no ideal hardware solution has been developed yet. There is always a compromise between destructive and non-destructive measurement, throughput and resolution, and ultimately, cost.

Recognition of these challenges and increased research investment to find the answers is now coming to the fore in international plant science.

USD $7 million for plant root research granted

Researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have just received a USD $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to design a low-cost, integrated system that can identify and screen for high-yielding, deeper-rooted crops.

The interdisciplinary team, led by Jonathan Lynch, distinguished Professor of Plant Nutrition, will combine a suite of technologies designed to identify phenotypes and genes related to desirable root traits, with the goal of enhancing the breeding of crop varieties better adapted for nitrogen and water acquisition and carbon sequestration.

“With ARPA-E’s support, we plan to create DEEPER, a revolutionary phenotyping platform for deeper-rooted crops, which will integrate breakthroughs in non-destructive field phenotyping of rooting depth, root modeling, robotics, high-throughput 3D imaging of root architecture and anatomy, gene discovery, and genomic selection modeling,” Lynch said.

“ARPA-E invests in programs that draw on a broad set of disciplines and require the bold thinking we need to build a better energy future,” said ARPA-E Director, Ellen D. Williams.

The project is part of ARPA-E’s Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration, or ROOTS, program, which is aimed at developing crops that enable a 50 percent increase in carbon deposition depth and accumulation, while also reducing nitrous oxide emissions (a contributor to greenhouse gas) by 50 percent and increasing water productivity by 25 percent.

Read the full article, by Charles Gill from The Pennsylvania State University, here.

UDC Plant Science Centre

Through a € 1.3m investment from Science Foundation Ireland, the Integrated Plant Phenomics and Future Experimental Climate Platform has been established at University College Dublin (UCD) in Ireland. The combination of infrastructure and facilities available to researchers will represent the first of its kind globally.

The platform will be housed in the same building at UCD allowing seamless transition from experiment to scanner. It will consist of a large capacity 3D X-ray CT scanner which uses X-rays taken from multiple angles to non-destructively build-up a 3D image of whole plants and their internal structures, both above and below ground with fast (minutes) scan times and six reach-in, high-spec plant climate chambers with full (de)humidification capabilities. Novel custom additions will include full-spectrum variable LEDs, enabling more accurate representation of sunlight conditions experienced by crops under field conditions. The chambers will integrate thermal imaging to continuously capture leaf temperature and inferred ecophysiological processes (gas exchange).

Breakthroughs in crop/plant/soil/food science will be possible, particularly below ground and at night, because the consequences of climate change or new crop breeds on below-ground /night-time processes have not been readily accessible before the advance of X-ray CT, thermal imaging and integration of these components into an infrastructure platform.

The Centre unites a large number of UCD plant scientists that investigate fundamental and applied aspects of plant science and work alongside industry in exploiting research breakthroughs.

Read more here.

Danforth Plant Science Center

A new industrial-scale X-ray Computed Tomography (X-ray CT) system at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, USA, is the first of its kind in the U.S. academic research sector dedicated to plant science and can provide accelerated insight into how root systems affect plant growth. The technology was established in late July 2016 under a collaborative multi-year Master Cooperation Agreement with Valent BioSciences Corporation (VBC) and is also supported with funds from a recent National Science Foundation grant.

“X-ray imaging has been a mainstay in medical and industrial research and diagnostics for many decades, yet it is rarely used in plant science,” said Chris Topp, Ph.D., assistant member of the Danforth Center and principal investigator for the project. “The X-ray CT system will allow us to ‘see’ roots in soil and study plants as a connected system of roots and shoots growing in diverse environments.”

“This system is unlike any other in the United States,” said said Keith Duncan, research scientist in the Topp Lab and manager of the new system. “It gives us a great deal of control over the X-ray conditions and will allow us to gather structural data on any object we put into the machine. It provides us with an internal look at not only the root systems, but what’s going on inside the stem and other parts of the plant without taking invasive measures such as removing the plant from the ground or cutting into it.”

In addition to grain crops, this project will also advance research in root and tuber crops such as cassava, potato, groundnut and others that are important for food security in many regions around the globe, but are especially hard to study.

The project combines state-of-the-art technology with computational analysis, quantitative genetics and molecular biology to understand root growth and physiology to assist researchers in understanding roots as they grow in real time in real soil. Both Topp and Duncan agree, this collaboration is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I expect that in a short time, the X-ray imager will catalyze numerous research projects among Danforth Center, St. Louis, national and international researchers that were previously not possible,” said Chris Topp, Ph.D., assistant member of the Danforth Center and principal investigator for the project.

Read more here. Learn more about the partnership and X-ray system here.

Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research

The Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research is a unique platform established with €3.5 million in funding from the European Research Council, the Wolfson Foundation, BBSRC, and the University of Nottingham. It accommodates ERC funded postdoctoral researchers and PhD students, X-ray imaging research equipment and automated growth facilities in one state-of-the-art building and fully automated greenhouse complex.

A key impediment to genetic analysis of root architecture in crops has been the ability to image live roots in soil non-invasively. Recent advances in microscale X-ray Computed Tomography (μCT) now permit root phenotyping. However, major technical and scientific challenges remain before μCT can become a high throughput phenotyping approach.

This unique high throughput root phenotyping facility exploits recent advances in μCT imaging, biological image analysis, wheat genetics and mathematical modelling to pinpoint the key genes that control root architecture and develop molecular markers and new crop varieties with improved nutrient and water uptake efficiency.

The facility’s ambitious multi-disciplinary research program will be achieved through six integrated work packages. The first 3 work packages were designed create high-throughput μCT (WP1) and image analysis (WP2) tools that will be used to probe variation in root systems architecture within wheat germplasm collections (WP3). Work packages 4-6 will identify root architectures that improve water (WP4) and nitrate uptake efficiencies (WP5) and pinpoint the genes that regulate these traits. In parallel, innovative mathematical models simulating the impact of root architecture and soil properties will be developed as tools to assess the impact of architectural changes on uptake of other nutrients in order to optimise crop performance (WP6).

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The Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research, University of Nottingham, UK